Ai Weiwei is currently having a mega exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, and in an attempt to be culturally informed and all that Rachel and I decided to spend our sunday afternoon there. It turned out to be a couple of hours incredibly well-spent: definitely one of the best exhibitions I’ve had the luck to visit over these few years in London.
AWW is not just an artist; he is a personality. And the remarkable thing about him is that this incredible, effervescent personality of his shines through in each and everyone of his works. Many are monumental and minimalist, but not devoid of a strong personal ‘voice’; in the gentle rolling waves of individually straightened steel bars (Straight, 2008-2012), you see the artist’s devastation and frustration at corrupt building practices. In his furniture series, where he and his amazing team works miracles and almost seamlessly reconfigures ancient Chinese furniture, I see a man who is curious, nostalgic, at times frustrated, but still harbouring a simple, subtle sense of humour. It all comes together quite marvellously. At once romantic, curious, uncanny and occasionally melancholic, his creations assert their presence with ease and confidence, whether or not they fit on narrow plinths or if they tower above you.
I saw a version of Grapes at the 2013 Venice Bienalle (German pavilion, I believe?) where a whole load of chairs were similarly conjoined, but all over and about the space of an entire room. It was very magnificent, and also the first AWW work I saw in person, but somehow I was more charmed by this circular thing. I guess there’s always a continuity to circles that attracts me; the allusion to a kind of infinity achieved. There’s also so much movement in this work – I imagine it looks like how and image would turn out if someone took a stool and swung it violently around, and was caught in stop motion photography.
I was endlessly intrigued by the way these furniture were so seamlessly fitted together! It seems almost too crude to say they were joined together, as if there was some sort of obvious adhesive, nailing, or screwing (ha ha) involved. These just fit. Perhaps you’re not able to tell quite so clearly in this picture, but part of the lower stool has been removed to make way for the upper one to fit. Can you imagine the level of precision and calculation that requires?
The gallery that moved me most, though, was the one early in the exhibition dedicated to the work AWW made about the tragedy that was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Because it struck during school hours, thousands of childrens’ lives were lost as school buildings were razed to the ground. Afterward, it was discovered that many of these school buildings had been poorly constructed due to the siphoning of building funds by corrupt officials, undoubtedly causing a larger death toll than the quake should have claimed. Parents were distraught, especially since the government refused to release proper information or statistics. Amongst the angry citizens was AWW, who proceeded to conduct his own investigation into the incident and consequently make work about it, of course against the wishes of the government. The works are poignant, sad, and frustrates even you, as the audience, because you wish that such a thing didn’t have to happen, that families didn’t have to be so tragically torn apart, that children could live out the rest of their years, instead of having them cruelly snatched away by a thing called money. The earthquake, of course, was a natural disaster, but the human error that resulted in so many more deaths was inexcusable and heartbreaking.
List of the young victims of the quake, that Ai gathered himself through seeking out and speaking to the families left behind.
On a less heavy note, there was a small gallery dedicated to AWW’s playful exploration with cubes, all 1m x 1m but made of vastly different materials. One was made entirely of compacted, dried, tea leaves! And it smelled heavenly. Then there was this puzzling one:
Made of crystal, it was fully solid but gave the impression of being filled with a clear, viscous liquid. It was very beautiful to look at, and through. Spend a bit of time on it, though, and you start to notice its oddities and complexities. Because of the nature of the material, which I can’t fully explain due to my non-existent knowledge of physics, light sort of travels through different parts differently, meaning that you could look through the cube if you looked at it from the side, but from above, it was an opaque surface. There were also multiple mirror effects kind of things that disrupted the image of the object as seen from the side: look at the kid above! It was so simple and elegant and yet so fascinating, and was also great fun.
Me thinks: A definite must, if you’re lucky enough to be in this city in these couple of months! A truly monumental and moving show, excellently curated, with information to guide you easily through the works, but not oversaturate your opinion. Frankly, I would have loved to have seen lots of these works outdoors, but of course that’s not always possible. Ai Wei Wei is one of the most interesting and relevant artists I’ve seen to emerge from this generation, and I respect him immensely for daring to speak out for what he believes is right, in a country where you’re not supposed to really have your own opinion of that. He speaks in the language of art, and how fluently so!
Word of caution – it can get really really crowded, so 1) book in advance and 2) try to pick an off-peak day and time.
Cheers ( to Ai Wei Wei – a man, an artist, and a revolutionary!) x
Ai Wei Wei
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
19 Sept – 13 Dec